Suddenly, the death penalty is back on the menu and as ever, a majority of people want it. I can understand why they want it, just as I can understand why people want to believe in life after death. It makes them feel better. It would make us a more barbaric society, but that wouldn’t matter to those who support the death penalty.
What else would it achieve? The death penalty could be regarded as a deterrent. Well, it is probably true that no one who has ever been executed has gone on to commit another crime. Would it act as a deterrent to those still only thinking about committing murder? If it did, US states that have abolished capital punishment would have higher murder rates than those that retain it. They don't. They have lower rates. No one commits a murder because the penalty is only life imprisonment and that’s okay. They commit murder, or rape, or burglary or speeding offences, because they don’t expect to get caught, so penalties are irrelevant. It’s the likelihood of being caught that would make the difference.
But the majority of murders don’t involve rational calculation. They involve blind rage, panic or stupidity and the thought what might follow doesn’t come into it. Murderers can be calculating if they are terrorists, of course, but if their ultimate personal goal is martyrdom, I don’t see why we should use the machinery of the justice system to oblige them. Much more irritating to them to shoot them in the legs and cart them off to hospital.
There is the argument that the death penalty would satisfy ‘justice.’ An eye for an eye. The theory is that if someone takes a life, justice requires they should pay with their own. There’s a major flaw in this argument. There’s a tin of baked beans at my local supermarket. Its price is on the shelf. If I am willing to pay that price, I am entitled to have the baked beans. It’s a matter of commerce. Life, death and murder don’t fit in this model. The price of murder is death? What if I am willing to pay with my own life? Does that entitle me to murder someone else? Murder can’t be paid for. It is beyond price.
There is the notion that the death penalty would bring closure to the survivors of the victim. Yes, I imagine that if someone I loved were murdered, in my grief and rage I would want the murderer hanged, drawn and quarter, boiled in oil, slow roasted, flayed alive, torn apart by horses. I would probably also want to be dead myself. Should the state kill the murderer in order to satisfy my desire for revenge and kill me to satisfy my suicidal urges? Or should it help me through both, back to something resembling sanity?
The only rational argument for capital punishment that might make any sort of logical sense is the argument that killing murderers would save time, space and money in comparison with keeping them in prison for years. Then save even more money by disposing of the old and disabled too.
No, there really is no rational argument for capital punishment, but that won’t stop people demanding it, because it would make them feel better. It would make them feel empowered in a world where bad things happen outside their control. To restrain someone, render him utterly helpless, even denying him the possibility of suicide, so that we can then, coldly and ceremonially, put him to death; what greater sense of power can there be? As any serial killer can probably testify.